13 MARCH 2002

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Why we still need to mark Women’s Day

As human resources general manager at Brandstätter Group - Malta, Antoinette Caruana has a hectic work schedule. With Women’s Day just behind us, she tells MIRIAM DUNN of her disappointment that so much of the female sector of the workforce is still entrenched in traditional roles.

Have you always been career-orientated, or did you become aware over time that your work was important to you?
My career was an evolution more than anything else. My mother always worked, so I was brought up in that kind of environment and when I married, I didn’t really consider stopping.
My career path did, however, change. When I was younger I wanted to be a teacher, but I rethought that idea and I started working at the bank. While there, I felt I wanted to push myself a bit further, so I decided to return part-time to university. This was a very fruitful period in my life - I loved studying and also discovered what I wanted to do – management.
I was lucky in that the bank supported me, but I decided I wanted to make a break and move in a different direction.
That was 12 years ago, when I applied for the post here of human resources manager. Things were very different then. The concept of human resources was not so developed, in fact I regard myself as very fortunate to have been involved in the changes taking place in this area, especially culture changes. I also remember being told they probably wanted a man for the job, while other people had a misconception about the sector I was going into, asking me why on earth I would want to leave the bank to go and work at a factory!

How do you manage to combine work with your home life?
I have had two children in the past eight years and didn’t really take much time out to have them. In fact, I was back at work within weeks each time.
I have a very supportive husband, which played a major factor in helping me pursue my career and I was also given good assistance by the people in my department.
External factors make a big difference, but I also believe that part of it comes down to personal drive – how much you want to achieve your dreams – irrespective of whether you’re male or female.
Nothing comes on a silver plate and things weren’t always easy. For example in our case, my husband and I had to take the decision to find childcare since my mother worked. That was a big decision, to find someone we were able to entrust with the children.
I think I was also fortunate in that Brandstätter is a forward-looking company with a female boss, which I’m sure made a difference.
People were already used to having women in managerial positions, so attitudes were changing, so to speak.
I think that women are sometimes disheartened about trying to combine a career and family life because they are unfortunately given the impression that it is a glamorous existence, while the truth is that it is a lot of hard work. Let me stress that there’s nothing wrong with opting to stay at home and look after the family – I don’t think any of us would want to see a demise in our family values – but perhaps more women would contemplate working as well if the life of a working woman was portrayed more realistically.

We have just marked another national women’s day. How far have we come in helping women who want to pursue a career alongside family commitments?
Actually, during last week’s activities to mark women’s day I made the remark that I’m not keen on the idea of having a women’s day, it’s almost demeaning. But when I look at what a lot we still need to achieve, I revise my views on these sort of activities, because they do, at least, draw attention to the issue.
My own belief is that if we want more women to return to or stay at work, then yes, we have to persist in changing the mentality, but we also have to build the right infrastructure, including putting childcare facilities in place that are professional.

Do you endorse a policy of positive discrimination?
I’m very cautious about positive discrimination; I am involved in a number of organisations and I would hate to think I was a token woman in any of them.
What we need is to ensure that the women who are working in key areas are recognised and rewarded properly for the important contribution they are making. Unfortunately, as we all know, women still tend to focus on the traditional areas, such as teaching and the caring professions.
We still need to address the issue of the shortfall of women in certain sectors of the workforce, especially since these are often areas that are developing and expanding, such as IT and engineering.
At Playmobil, for example, our workforce used to be primarily female, but today, now that the work is much more technical, the female workforce has reduced.

How has Playmobil kept ahead during the international economic changes we have witnessed?
I think part of Playmobil’s success during its 30-year history since it was set up in Malta has been its willingness to change with the times, and never take success for granted.
Every stage of the company’s life has been formative.
The management has always been very aware of the need to retain Malta as a stronghold for the company. Playmobil was set up here at the same time as a number of other German companies came to Malta and they all had the same reasons for opening here, such as the tax incentives.
But if we hadn’t moved with the times, we wouldn’t be here today.
About 12 years ago we reached the conclusion that if we were to remain in Malta, we needed to change the way we worked. We invested in two key areas - technology and the training of people. We set ourselves targets of where we wanted to go and how we were going to achieve them. We are also very aware of what is happening around us, both in Malta and internationally.
Of course, tantamount to all of this is our customer. We are particularly mindful of what our customers want, and the fact that their needs change.

And what does this year have in store for Playmobil?
We have a very busy year ahead and our order books are full, which is great news for the company.
The coming year will involve a move since we will be opening a new factory in Hal Far which the government is building, while we will be providing all the infrastructure.
It is an exciting project, since we will be simultaneously completely changing our production system to be able to deal more efficiently with our customers’ orders. The new system will combine the various functions in our production, ensuring we are more product-led.
Playmobil’s management is divided into four main areas; production, technical investment, corporate services and human resources. We view it as essential that there is full involvement when we discuss making key changes, and obviously it’s not always plain sailing, but I am pleased to say that most of our people view change positively.

Do you think Malta is gearing up for the changes that today’s marketplace demands?
There is no doubt that Malta is changing. And these changes have to take place irrespective of whether or not we join the European Union.
We have to get our act together and we certainly have to move away from the idea that anyone owes Malta a living. This is simply not true. It is up to us to perform, to show we can do it. On the positive side, there is evidence that industries in different sectors are making the necessary adjustments.
I think much will be determined by the management; both of the country and private companies.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt